Monday, November 18, 2013

There's No Partial Credit in Law Practice

A student who completed one of my computer-assisted legal exercises pointed out that one of his answers was partially correct, and asked me why he didn’t receive partial credit. The short answer is a technical one--the software doesn’t allow for partial credit on questions. But the student’s inquiry made me think about the deeper issue of giving credit for partially correct answers.

All of the law professors I know give partial credit for exam essay answers that contain errors or reach erroneous conclusions. In the context of a single end-of-semester exam, where there’s significant time pressure and no opportunity for students to redo their answers, that philosophy probably makes sense. But does it teach our students the wrong lesson?

One doesn’t get credit for partially correct answers in law practice. Answers are either right or wrong. If the lawyer tells the client yes and the correct answer is no, it doesn’t matter that most of the lawyer’s analysis was correct. Overlooking a crucial fact or missing an important step in the analysis is not excusable in practice. The client is unlikely to congratulate the lawyer for being 80% correct.

Of course, lawyers get lucky. The lawyer’s answer may be right even though the analysis is completely wrong. A poorly drafted clause in a contract may never be triggered. But lawyers don’t survive for long on luck. Eventually, poor or incomplete analysis will bite the lawyer.

A partially correct answer is bad lawyering. It may make sense to give credit for a partially correct answer on law exams, but we should make it clear to our students that partially correct isn’t acceptable in real life.

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